It's shortly after prime minister's question time on a rather feverish day in British politics, and Ed Balls freely admits to feeling mentally exhausted.
But not, it turns out, by anything to do with politics. For while his wife Yvette Cooper is in parliament grappling with Brexit, the former shadow chancellor is in a dance studio in Shoreditch, frantically rehearsing for his role in this year's Strictly Come Dancing.
“It's really hard to focus on all the things you’re supposed to think about – it's a lot more complicated than I thought,” he confesses. The exhaustion comes, he says, from “trying to concentrate all the time” on something that comes rather less naturally to him than economics. And if the steps are challenging, that’s nothing compared to wardrobe and makeup.
“I can’t believe I’m going to get a spray tan. I’m totally in denial"
“They slipped me into spangles!” Balls cries of the glittery hooped shirt he wore for Saturday night’s opening episode, despite his initial insistence on sober suits. “Yvette said it looked like a darts player’s shirt. They had some spangles which they sprung on me at the last minute, they glued them on during the afternoon.” Then there’s the growing pressure to be spray-tanned, which he was horrified to learn from broadcaster and Strictly graduate Jeremy Vine involves stripping naked: “This is still so far out of my comfort zone, I can’t believe I’m going to get a spray tan. I’m totally in denial.
“But every time I think ‘this is a step too far’ I end up doing it. In the first rehearsal they asked me to do something and I turned to the professional dancer I was with and said ‘I can’t do that, it’s too camp’ and she said ‘there’s never anything too camp for this show’.” He ruefully admits even Yvette and the elder two of their three children, 17-year-old Ellie and 15-year-old Joe, found his performance “hilarious” when they attended Saturday's recording.
And if this self-deprecating character doesn’t sound like the Balls the nation thought it knew – the bruiser who steamrollered Tory opponents and Labour critics alike, and whose surprise defeat at the 2015 election became a national “Portillo moment” – perhaps that’s the point. The theme of his new autobiography Speaking Out is his realisation that showing vulnerability isn’t actually a weakness, and that being open about private battles (in his case, overcoming a stammer) invites more empathy than blustering it out. Learning to dance in public may be a painfully exposing prospect but if some viewers identify with a middle-aged man gamely struggling to master something new, he’ll take that as a win.
“The thing I’ve seen so far is that when people laugh they laugh with you rather than at you. And even if they laugh at you it’s kind of generous and inclusive. If I’ve got any chance of surviving a week it will be because middle-aged and older men know this is what they look like, too.”
I’ve always had pictures of the kids on my phone and my office at work. Yvette doesn’t, she feels it’s bad enough being away from the children, she doesn’t want to be reminded
Besides, he says, the family are Strictly fans and egged him on. “Yvette said ‘How could you ever live with yourself if you said no?’ I thought she was going to say no and that was going to be the end of it, but because she was so enthusiastic I thought ‘maybe it’s worth a
That story says much about their famously egalitarian marriage, which has somehow allowed them both to pursue Cabinet careers with raising Ellie, Joe and 12-year-old Maddie. Juggling all that hasn’t always been easy; in the book Balls describes once taking an important call from Downing Street while crawling through a plastic tunnel at a soft play centre, and he admits sometimes finding it hard to switch off at
home. The children, he says, “visibly relaxed” after their parents left government.
But their secret as a couple seems to be negotiating turns in the limelight – most controversially six years ago, when Yvette announced she wouldn’t run for the leadership after Gordon Brown quit because the children were so young, only for their father to run instead. That sparked national debate over the nature of male versus female ambition – given an identical job and identical children, why should family life hold her back and not him? – plus some hurtful speculation about him elbowing her out of the way.
The story as told in the book, however, is very different. When they sat down to talk at their kitchen table (not, as Ed initially joked, a motorway service station Costa) the joint assumption was that she had the stronger claim to the leadership. He didn’t expect to win if he
ran, meaning little would change for the family. But things were different for her.
“We both knew there was more chance of Yvette winning than me,” he says now.
“In a way she has to answer this for herself but I'm pretty clear that she thought for her, as a woman, and a mother she would not be able to deal with being away and the focus she would have to give to the job when the children were still quite young, and it was different for her than for me. And she may be right.” But she was very clear that if it was his turn this time, it was hers next – throwing up some awkward questions for Balls about his own future career, given the likely resistance to him serving in a shadow cabinet run by his wife.
“Part of my concern on election night was that if I won my seat and Yvette was going for the leadership, it was going to be complicated for me to find a way to make the next five years work. There was part of me that was quite relieved [to lose],” he confesses. He wouldn't even take a peerage for fear of getting in her way – leaving him no foothold at Westminster when she ultimately lost to Jeremy Corbyn.
And then, into the vacuum, came Strictly. Balls has joked about it being part of a midlife crisis but concedes, when prodded, that he did go through a “really difficult” emotional patch – only not, surprisingly, when he so publicly lost his Westminster seat. It was Labour losing office five years earlier that did it.
“I was 30 when we won in 1997, I’d spent all my school and teenage years thinking about being part of a Labour government if I could. When that ended and everything was taken away you suddenly realise the children have grown up more than you realised, you are now in your 40s, it may be that we won't get into government again quickly.”
He insists it wasn't a dark night of the soul, but he was clearly frustrated by the impotence of opposition. “I sat around feeling exhausted, found it really hard to be motivated, thinking ‘I don't know what to do next’.” To challenge himself he took up marathon running, playing piano, and tweeting about the elaborate birthday cakes he’d always baked for their children – which led to a slot on last year’s Celebrity Bakeoff and now Strictly.
The current Labour leadership seems, he says, ‘focused
on controlling the Labour party and organising protests’
They’re time-consuming hobbies and he admits Yvette “used to get annoyed” when he did piano practice during the frantic morning rush. But, he says, “it’s more that she gets frustrated that the combination of work and all the things she wants to do with the family means it’s really hard to find time and I’m better at compartmentalising it, saying ‘I’m going to spend some time doing this.’
“It’s like, I’ve always had pictures of the kids on my phone and my office at work. Yvette doesn’t, she feels it’s bad enough being away from the children, she doesn’t want to be reminded. I think that’s a difference in how men and women think.”
So what now, for both of them? In the book, Balls analyses in detail why politicians failed to foresee the crash and how Ed Miliband lost but is noticeably silent about why nobody anticipated Corbyn winning. That story is, perhaps, his wife’s to tell.
He admits finding it “incredibly frustrating and worrying” that Labour has so little to say about where Britain goes after Brexit, adding scathingly that the current leadership seems “much more focused on controlling the Labour party and organising protests”.
Yet for now the closest he’ll come to international relations is striving not to let Katya Jones, his Russian-born professional dance partner, down.
“I’m not going into this to do what Ann Widdecombe did, to become a comedy act,” he says as he heads back into the studio. “I’m going to try to do better. Katya is a world champion, she wants to do well, she wants people to see me improve.” He ignored advice to take sneaky dance lessons in advance precisely because, he says, “it’s all about endeavour and achievement and if I start from a low base and can get better, that’s a better way to do it”. He’s talking about Strictly, obviously. It only strikes me afterwards that it could as easily be a recipe for Labour’s hard road back to power.